Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Penderwicks in Spring

I don't usually pre-order books, but with The Penderwicks in Spring, the fourth book in Jeanne Birdsall's planned five book series, I made an exception. Not only had my twelve year old daughter been eagerly anticipating the next installment since she was nine, I love these delightful books too. When I had a gift certificate around Christmas, I plugged the pre-order into my purchase...and almost forgot about it.

You can imagine the excitement when the beautiful yellow and green jacketed hardback arrived on Friday. The sweet girl and I promptly treated the book like Nick and Tommy Geiger treat their beloved football, passing it with great enthusiasm. She read it in two days, managed to not give me any major spoilers, and handed it off after telling me that she loved it. I also read it in two days (knowing we will both go back to savor it more slowly later) partly because I knew she was longing to talk about it. Which is what we did for a good bit of yesterday morning.

Without providing too many spoilers, I do want to give a shout-out that this book is every bit as lovely as its predecessors, and in many ways moved my heart more deeply than the first three. The books have always been a wonderful mixture of humor, sweetness, and some bitter sweetness. Birdsall manages to balance multiple emotions while providing stories with lively pacing and character defining moments for her beloved cast of characters.

Fans of the books should know – and this is nothing you can’t discover online or on the book flap – that the events in this book take place about five years after the last one. That means that Rosalind, Skye, and Jane Penderwick are nearly grown up – 18, 17, and 16 respectively, with Rosy off to college in Rhode Island and only home for occasional visits. That makes Batty almost 11, about the age Jane was when we last spent time with the Penderwicks, and Ben (their stepbrother, the son of Iantha) now 8. (One of the first things the sweet girl said to me when she was in the midst of reading was “Ben really talks now!” which made me laugh.) There is also a new Penderwick on the scene, rambunctious Lydia, age 2.

The book belongs to the younger Penderwicks, with its heart and soul reserved for Batty. While I missed more time with the older three…though they do come into the story in important ways, and still feel very much themselves in spite of being teenagers…I was so glad that Batty finally got her book. I don’t know if I feel a special affinity for Batty because we share the role of “fourth child” in the family, but I’ve always loved this youngest (well, used to be youngest) Penderwick sister, ever since she wandered into the pages of the first book wearing her butterfly wings. Batty has long since outgrown the wings, but this book is, in many ways, about her learning to fly. 

In case you’re wondering, Jeffrey makes a couple of important appearances, and the Geiger boys (now young men), are also prominent this time out, especially the oldest Geiger, Nick, who turns out to be an important mentor for Ben and a good friend to Batty when she most needs one. Tommy Geiger, Rosalind’s long-time suitor, is offstage for most of the narrative, but have no fear…Tommy being Tommy, he shows up when it counts.

Ben has turned into a delightful kid, with a love for action figures and rock collecting and a personality as big as it needs to be to help him hold his own in a houseful of girls. Mr. Penderwick and Iantha have small roles this time out, but they’re still their usual loving selves, supportive and helpful parents with the humor they need to help their children sort things out. Mr. P still spouts Latin whenever he gets the chance, but since Skye is now taking Spanish and Jane is learning French (badly), little Lydia, in the parroting stage, is quite the polyglot.

I won’t say a thing about Penderwick animals (fearing to give too much away), but animals are important in this story, as they almost always are.

The moments of humor are delightful, as always, especially when Rosalind brings a potential suitor home from college, a handsome guy whose terrific cheek bones can’t make up for the fact that he spouts all sorts of pretentious silliness about books and films.

Keep an eye out for echoes from the first books, including the very first book. The Alcott echoes continue to feel strong in this book too. Oh, and don’t be surprised if there are a few secret MOPS meetings, as well as MOOPS, MOYPS and even a MOBAB. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you need to get to your nearest library quickly and pick up a copy of the first novel. Go! Now! What are you waiting for?)

The moments of pathos are also beautifully rendered in this book, especially as Batty does some soul-searching, both about her musical gifts and about her place in the family. Since the four girls’ mother died not long after Batty was born, Batty has always been the liminal character, the one more than anyone else who seems to straddle the family as it originally was and the family as it has come to be. We see in the book that sometimes that perch can feel a little precarious, but it also has its gifts.

I both laughed and cried in the final chapters. The Penderwicks in Spring is a worthy penultimate installment in a great series. The sweet girl and I both eagerly await book five and whatever surprises and familiarities that may have in store.

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